Fare’s Fair?

My first encounter with Carlo Petrini, and the moment that instantly endeared him to me, was at a talk in San Francisco. One of the questions from the audience was: “if Slow Food is expensive food, how will we afford it?” Eyes twinkling, he pulled out his cellphone and said, “We need to pay less for this!”

It was a fabulous teaching moment, a reminder that we can make choices about how we live our lives, and where we choose to spend our resources. Nobody believes that they’re not paying enough for their cellphones. At the same time, food that is good, clean and fair obviously costs more than food that is bad, dirty and exploitative. We can, and should, choose to support food that is, in every way, sustainable. The question is how.

Especially in this global recession, more people are being forced to ‘choose’ cheap unsustainable food rather than more expensive sustainance. Yet the full costs of ‘cheap food’ are too often hidden. One study conducted in India found that the true environmental and social cost of a hamburger, if grown on clear-cut forest, was $200. And that’s likely an understatement, now that the full health costs, in terms of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, are calculated.

Prices are a poor guide to the value of things going into our food – the average American needs the equivalent of 2000 litres of oil to fuel industrial agriculture, from powering irrigation to creating nitrogen fertilizer. Are the full climate change-related costs of using oil included in the price of food? They are not.

In the United States, some workers live in conditions of modern-day slavery, and their captors are prosecuted under the same laws used to abolish slavery in the 1860s. Is their suffering included in the price of the food they grow? It is not.

The progressive response to this is understandable – we need to pay more for food, so that the environment’s value is reflected more fully, and so that people who grow food should earn a living wage. It’s a sentiment that finds its apotheosis in the ‘fair trade’ movement, in which workers in developing countries are paid a fair wage to grow the tropical foods that people in developed countries want to eat – coffee, chocolate, bananas and so forth.

Before I suggest that there’s something wrong with this picture, I raise my hand and say, “Yes! I buy fair trade goods,” because what is the alternative? Unfair trade? Trade that leaves blood on your hands? Certainly not. But there is nonetheless something problematic here. The trouble doesn’t merely lie in the practice of fair trade, though recent studies are finding that fair trade’s benefits to workers and the environment have been somewhat over-sold.

The problem lies in the theory behind fair trade. It is, ultimately, a system in which consumers and their fair trade agents call the shots. Ask farmers in developing countries what they’d like, and fair trade appears far down the list. It’s not that farmers don’t want higher prices, but for sustainable producers, issues like fair access to land, water, and local markets are far more important. These are issues that fair trade leaves untouched, because the balance of power remains firmly in the hands of those with the most money.

Taking the Slow Food idea of co-production seriously means, at the very least, balancing the power between those who grow and those who eat food. When food is distributed through the market, power lies in the hands of eaters. We recognise that markets are poor guides to the true value of food, that fair trade only really scratches the surface of the issues of sustainability, and that it leaves intact the idea dynamic of the powerful telling the poor what the terms of exchange should be. It’s a very friendly, well-intentioned and benevolent kind of patriarchy.

So what’s the alternative? I suggest not that markets should be abandoned, but that they need much more carefully to be socially controlled. We need a greater social engagement with the politics of value, not just its economics in which everyone gets to have a voice. There are great dangers in letting the market take this role away from us.

Let’s take another example that is increasingly cited in the food world. Some activists and commentators have suggested that the answer is to pay farmers for good environmental and social behaviour. I think this is a bad idea, not because its goal is unworthy, but because the means are distasteful. Paying farmers, or anyone else, not to do things that they shouldn’t do is a bad idea. If I offered to pay you for every puppy you didn’t kick, I would be using market means to increase the value of your non-kicking-of-puppies. But it turns such behaviour into something that can be bought and sold, rather than as a non-negotiable point of departure for all human beings, just as good ecological and social pratice needs to be the basis of all farming.

Before food can have a price, fair or otherwise, it needs to be a commodity, it needs to become a thing that can be bought and sold on certain terms. There are ways in which society defines what is acceptable and unacceptable in this process – turning people into slaves is generally frowned on, for instance. By handing over ethical decisions to the market, we abdicate the political process of shaping how exchange happens. What we need is much more democratic politics around the value of food, in which the terms of exchange are negotiated from a much more egalitarian basis.

The first thing this needs is time. In order to have these discussions, which I very much hope will be happening at Terra Madre, we need more difficult, democratic deliberation. Slow Food needs Slow Politics if it is to address the deep inequities of international and, indeed, domestic trade. This idea is, however, a sine qua non of Slow Food. Transforming the point of departure for the value of food is revolutionary, but the idea of co-production demands nothing less.

Raj Patel is the author of Stuffed and Starved and the forthcoming book The Value of Nothing.

First Published in the Italian magazine Slowfood n°43

Illustration by Gianluca Costantini

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